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Delay is the price for high-tech systems: Satish Soni

Vice Admiral Satish Soni, chief of the Eastern Naval Command, talks to Business Standard‘s Ajai Shukla in Visakhapatnam. Edited excerpts.

There is growing concern about the induction of warships without essential equipment like the Advanced Towed Array Sonar (ATAS) or the Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LR-SAM), which are delayed in development.

I wouldn’t say there is serious cause for concern. If you are developing a new weapon system (like ATAS, or LR-SAM), you cannot expect it to come exactly on time. What do you do? Do you not commission the ship or do you commission the ship and wait for (the weapon system) to materialise?

A warship has many roles (such as anti-submarine, anti-air, anti-surface). One such role may not be met to a hundred per cent satisfaction. This happens all over the world, and it is happening here. I think we should be happy that we are getting new, state-of-the-art weapon systems for the first time. To get them exactly on time, you’ve got to be very lucky.

You are saying we should accept capability gaps when warships are inducted, so that we have a cutting-edge system later?

It is not a capability gap. It is a dilution of a particular capability, in a particular ship, in a particular sphere. If, for example, INS Kolkata is not commissioned with an (LR-SAM), there are many other such systems in the fleet. So the Kolkata can be used for anti-submarine warfare. It is a multi-role ship. The Kolkata can still be operationally exploited. This (kind of delay) is the price that you pay when you go in for high-tech, state-of-the-art systems.

What happens if the ship is called into operational use before its weapons are developed and fitted?

Even if it is called into operational use, the fleet operates together and it is the fleet’s capability that matters, not individual ships’. For example (the anti-submarine corvette) INS Kamorta does not have surface-to-surface missiles. That doesn’t mean there is a capability gap. That (land attack) role will be fulfilled by other vessels in the fleet, which have that capability.

What is alarming is the delay in fitting weaponry that a warship is designed to have. On another note, has the navy’s new Rukmini satellite created a digitally networked navy?

Our navy has made a huge jump with the launch and operation of Rukmini. Networking various units (warships) is important for quick reactions in action. It is important for units to know where other units are, (and to) interact with other units, and for specialists on one ship to interact with specialists on another ship to coordinate attacks, and bear weapons on a particular target.

In February 2014, we had our annual exercise, TROPEX (Theatre Level Operational Readiness Exercise). This is the ultimate test of networking, of the ability of units to participate in a 10-day or 15-day war, dispersed over different parts of the sea. We operated (widely dispersed). It was possible because we were able to network and for fleet commanders to pass orders, and for ships to interact with each other and know where they are and to coordinate plans.

Can you explain with a practical example?

In an anti-submarine operation, if two ships are hunting for a submarine, they can coordinate duties. If you are networked well, you can just punch in a digital message (from one ship to another), “I am altering course to starboard or to port”. If you are not networked, you pass messages (more unreliably) by voice.

Alternatively, if a warship contacts an enemy vessel but does not have weapons with the range to strike, it can digitally hand over that target to another warship that is within range.

You are saying one ship can designate a target, which will be engaged by weapons from another ship?

That is very much possible but you can only do that if you are networked. Every ship in the fleet with a Rukmini antenna on board can talk to another.

Is China emerging as a key adversary for the eastern naval command?

We don’t have any maritime disputes with China. We look upon China as a partner in ensuring peace and stability in the maritime element. China is now operating in our waters and we sometimes go to the South China Sea but essentially we operate in different waters. There is no acrimony between the two services.

As a navy grows in power and responsibility, it should provide some kind of (security) umbrella to the smaller navies to try and build them up. That is what we are doing. Today, Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar — all these navies are training with us. We are giving material support to them. There is frequent exchange of delegations. We are trying to build around us some kind of cohesion in the Indian Ocean. We expect China to do the same.

Given the security situation in the Indo-Pacific, and India’s Look East policy, is your fleet adequate?

In the longer term, we have a Maritime Capability Persp-ective Plan, which is formulated by navy headquarters. While we would like more assets that are being given, we have enough surface ships to meet our responsibilities. We are short of submarines now… we have only six, including (the nuclear powered) INS Chakra. We would want more submarines definitely.

But you know the Scorpene class is going to be commissioned only in 2016-17 and we are going to have one every year, six of them. So 2016 to 2022, that is going to be the only accretion to our submarine fleet. There is no point in saying, “I want 30”, because you know that till 2022, you are not reaching anywhere.

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